Prince William County officials last week unveiled plans for a STEM Education Center at the county’s sanitary landfill on Dumfries Road near Independent Hill.

Billed as an interpretative education center for science, technology, engineering and math, the facility would be used to teach students and the public about environmental issues and challenges, Tom Smith, Prince William’s solid waste division chief, said at a public information session Wednesday.

The center would cost an estimated $3 million to $5 million to build, though, and no money is budgeted for its construction, Smith said. The county is seeking partners and grants to cover the capital costs, he said.

“What we’re proposing to do is use the Living Building Challenge . . . which really makes the building like it’s self-sufficient,” Smith said. The Living Building Challenge is a certification program that sets standards for green buildings.

Smith said that the education center would treat and recycle its own water and create its own power. “It would not even be hooked up to the power line,” he said, describing the center as a “multipurpose-type building” that would be used by residents, researchers, county employees and students.

“Our students and youth can learn about green buildings, how to properly recycle and reuse, and . . . ecology through this building,” Smith said.

Graduate students studying architecture at Catholic University have developed designs for the center, which would include gallery space for educational exhibits, an auditorium, a laboratory, classrooms and office space, he said.

The building would be the centerpiece of the landfill’s “Eco-Park,” which Smith said started several years ago with a series of initiatives to make the landfill more environmentally friendly. The Eco-Park includes programs to divert waste materials, capture gases produced at the landfill for energy use and make the landfill’s buffer area available for environmental studies by community groups.

The landfill covers more than 1,000 acres, including about 380 acres of buffer, Smith said. The buffer zone is mostly wooded and has a five-acre wetlands project, he said.

In his presentation, Smith described several Eco-Park programs to develop and use sources of energy at the landfill as alternatives to fossil fuels.

Since 1998, Prince William has contracted with Fortistar, a private company, to extract landfill gases for energy uses, Smith said. With county approval, Fortistar expanded its plant in November and now generates 6.5 megawatts of power with five engines — enough electricity to power about 5,000 homes, Smith said. The county receives 5 percent of the revenue from energy sales, as well as payments for gas rights.

Smith said that the county is also looking at ways of generating alternative forms of energy on sections of the landfill that have been filled and closed.

Prince William officials are negotiating with a private firm to put solar panels on the landfill to provide power to the nearby Juvenile Detention Home and maintenance facilities for county and school vehicles, Smith said.

Smith said his office is working with the county school system to develop a program that would use the landfill and its buffers for science education.

The plans include a network of trails between the landfill and three nearby schools: Coles Elementary, Benton Middle and the county’s unnamed 12th high school, which is under construction. The trails would wind through the landfill’s buffer zone, connecting the schools with the proposed education center.

Smith said county and school staff members are working together to create “outdoor classroom” opportunities.

“The landfill is like an outdoor laboratory,” he said. “You’ve got groundwater issues, you’ve got stormwater issues, you’ve got erosion issues, a constant construction site. You’ve got renewable energy; you’ve got decomposition of waste.”

Sarah Meyers, 31, of Manassas attended the information session and said afterward that she was excited about what she heard.

“I’ve always been interested in the environment,” she said. “I really like the ideas of the walking trails and the whole self-
sustaining system of the education center. That’s a great place to start.”

Barnes is a freelance writer.